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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Has there ever been a better, or more harrowing film about basic training than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) — a film that proves conclusively that, as one of its characters says, “The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive”? I don’t think so. From real life non-actor R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a former Marine drill instructor who whips his recruits into shape for Vietnam, to the hapless Sad Sack Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), who eventually snaps after months of brutalization, Full Metal Jacket deals with Kubrick’s classic recurring theme — the mind breaks down.

The homicidal computer Hal in 2001; Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining; General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Dr. Strangelove; Humbert Humbert (James Mason) in Lolita; Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange; all of them lose conrol over their mental faculties, and spiral down to varying degrees of madness. Full Metal Jacket, then, is not only about the the madness of war, but also about the wounds, both physical and psychic, that it inflicts on those who participate in it.

As Rita Kempley wrote in the Washington Post,

Full Metal Jacket, based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, is a disturbing, indelible movie structured in two parts — the first is a boot camp opera, the Parris Island Follies, a drill instructor’s aria sung to a chorus of grunts; the second takes the Marine Corps kids-turned-killers to the rubble that was Hue, where they are pinned down by fierce fighting men and little girls with guns. It’s symbolic that the sharpshooter, nothing more than a slip of a girl, should turn the war upside down for these killers created from cornfed boys called “ladies” by their DI.

The raw recruits, shorn of their hair and so their individuality, become crack combat troops under the tutelage of the archetypal Marine drill instructor hollering insults faster than Rambo kills commies and 20 times as lethal. Tearing down their defenses, their relationships, realigning their sex drives, he marries love and violence, the soldier to his rifle. Lee Ermey, a former Marine NCO, is a natural as Sgt. Hartman, the bulldog-faced terror who turns these babies into replacement parts for Uncle Sam’s Lean Green Fighting Machine.”

You can see a clip from the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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